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Desert Noir

Barrio muses: Calexico's John Convertino (left) and Joey Burns
Val Caez

It's easy to be taken aback by the depth of Calexico's The Black Light. In under 60 minutes, the group's auteurs (and erstwhile Giant Sand rhythm section) John Convertino and Joey Burns explore more than a dozen musical idioms and bring those elements to life with the cinematic grandeur of a Sergio Leone epic and the intimate scope of a personal travelogue. The duo combines a potent amalgam of Link Wray-style guitar, mariachi shadings and dark surrealistic imagery to produce a powerful cocktail of "desert noir."

Perhaps more than anything, one gets a profound sense of geography from The Black Light. Intentional or not, Calexico has created an album that reshapes conventional notions about how setting can influence art, as the record manages to create a musical landscape as harsh, wondrous and intriguing as the desert itself (it's no coincidence, then, that the material for the band's current tour-only CD, Road Map 98-99, comes from an aborted book-on-tape project the band had started for author Lawrence Clark Powell's Literary Guide to the Southwest).

For Burns, a native of Southern California, the move he made to the Arizona desert more than five years ago provided a stark contrast to the experience of growing up in Long Beach. "Where I grew up really close to the water, Tucson is kind of the flip flop or the inverse of what that's like," he says. "So instead of going out to the cliffs and watching the sunset over the ocean, you go to these dry, ancient riverbeds. You've heard the story before. The desert definitely has that bottom of the ocean feel and it's haunting."

Just as the album offers a worthy impression of the Sonoran Desert's physical landscape, it also manages to capture its cultural identity with an equally abstract precision. Musically, the record was born out of the deep experiences Convertino and Burns have shared as residents of Tucson's unique Barrio Viejo community.

"The neighborhood has a vibrancy. It has a lot of color, a lot of flavor," says Burns quietly, as if revealing some deep secret. "It seeps through the walls -- the two-inch-thick mud adobe walls. This part of town definitely has this kind of lingering, ghostlike quality to it. There are a lot of stories that are just blowing through the street. You can hear the radio blasting on the weekend mornings; the laundry flowing out on the line; fresh tortillas being made and the smell of beans being cooked all weekend. There's definitely something here that feeds the inspiration."


Joey Burns and John Convertino first crossed paths more than a decade ago in Southern California when Burns, the native Golden Stater, met up with New York-by-way-of-Oklahoma transplant Convertino. Convertino was first to hook up with desert iconoclast Howe Gelb's Giant Sand, joining the group in 1988 during a period that found Gelb relocated from his Tucson base to the City of Angels. Burns came to the combo on bass in 1991, establishing a tight rhythm section and a unique creative bond with Convertino that would bloom in the following years.

During an extended break from Giant Sand during the mid-'90s, Convertino and Burns got involved with the loose-knit cocktail music collective known as the Friends of Dean Martin. Led by Bill Elm, the group went onto record a pair of albums for Sub-Pop (the label insisted for legal reasons that the group change its name to Friends of Dean Martinez). The experience -- which found Burns on guitar and Convertino stepping out from behind the drum kit to tackle everything from accordion to marimba -- was integral in shaping what would eventually become Calexico.

The duo would also spend much of the next few years as a roving rhythm section. Collaborating with artists including Richard Buckner, Victoria Williams, Barbara Manning, Bill Janovitz and Lisa Germano, Convertino and Burns earned a reputation as the hired hands in indie and underground music. Burns says the opportunity to work with so many diverse writers and performers proved to be unique education. "You learn new things, new tricks or you kind of look at things differently because its not your project."

The pair also formed an especially tight working relationship with violinist/singer Germano, with whom the duo (and Howe Gelb) recorded and released the country tinged album, Slush, under the moniker OP8. "She was amazing. I learned a lot from the way she's really disciplined about going into the studio and the different ways she would record things," recalls Burns. "Just the way she would produce and arrange her violin parts and how she would layer things. Her use of melody and doubling -- all those kinds of things that come naturally to her. But when you see someone doing it firsthand, you pick up on those ideas."  

The pair split from FODM after sessions for the group's second album, 1997's Retrograde, when Elm left for L.A. taking the band's record deal with him. A year earlier, Convertino and Burns had released a self-titled vinyl-only collection of material under the name Spoke on the German Haus Musik Records label. After leaving FODM, Convertino and Burns decided to pursue the project in earnest, rechristening themselves as Calexico and releasing Spoke domestically on Chicago indie Touch and Go's sublabel Quarterstick.

Although more modest in its aims than The Black Light, Spoke offered a cozy lo-fi charm that mixed surf-tinged guitars with cowboy lounge and myriad sparse sonic touches in small bites (most of the album's 19 tracks clock in at under three minutes and some at under 30 seconds).

Following a tour in support of Spoke, Convertino and Burns returned to Tucson in mid-1998 to begin work on a follow-up. The duo retreated to the city's downtown Wavelab studios. Located in an often unpredictably noisy warehouse section, the studio (which has since moved) boasts a vintage two-inch 16-track recording set-up that Burns lovingly refers to as "a beautiful machine." The raw (and un-air-conditioned) studio environment proved to be pivotal in shaping the ambient and often organic feel of the record. "You can't escape the noises there," says Burns. "Whether it's the noise of the trains or sounds from the dance theater next door. You can hear that at the end of a song like 'Blood Flow' -- all these weird screams. We'd have to either stop to wait for the train or the noise to die down or just let it happen. So there's a kind of feel there that's very spontaneous."

That bit of spontaneity complemented Burns and Convertino's collaborative process, which is similarly born out of a mercurial, almost jazzlike sense of improvisation. "We write a lot during the recording process. Songs like the 'Black Light' were done live in the studio," he says. "John and I just play off each other all the time. I'll start playing guitar, and he'll play drums, and we'll build from there. We may add thick texturing and layering of instrumentation, or we'll leave it alone to allow for more space on some songs."

The duo recorded in the sweltering heat of the Naked Pueblo from July until the December chill took over. Over a period of months, the pair invited a group of friends and guests including Gelb, Convertino's wife, Tasha Bundy, steel guitarist Neil Harry, violinist Bridget Keating and a whole cast of talented mariachi trumpeters and guitarists. When they emerged with the tracks that comprise The Black Light, it became clear that the record (featuring 12 instrumental cuts) had managed to pack the varied experiences and influences of the past five years into one coherent and ambitious artistic statement.

Opening with the monstrous twang of "Gypsy's Curse," the tracks range from the smoky Latin jazz of "Fake Fur" and "Sprawl" to the '60s sounding gringo rock of "The Ride (pt II)." The record's diverse stylistic flourishes are complemented throughout by soothing touches of accordion, cello and mandolin.

The album's centerpiece is the three-minute, eight-second "Minas De Cobre." The song, a breathtaking mini-epic, invokes a thousand flickering images and moments. The track begins with the sound of a train whistle cutting though a gentle Spanish guitar. The soft strumming quickly fades, signaling a vibrant burst of full mariachi brass that speeds to its seeming conclusion, but it's merely the beginning of another transition -- a pulsating climax worthy of Ennino Morricone's most dramatic showdown score. The song comes full circle as it closes by segueing into the familiar strains of the opening movement.

While the music plays on one (very panoramic) level, Burns' lyrics tell an equally broad yet different tale. His hushed, half-spoken, half-sung tales trace the travels of a hapless loner who wanders his way though a maze of unlikely adventures. Burns' terse prose paints a redemptive road story replete with a protagonist who begins as a hotel worker, later joins a Mexican circus and encounters a slew of David Lynchian characters along the way. Burns' vivid story-songs contain elements of Lee Hazelwood's brisk spoken narratives combined with the skewed cinematic sensibility of filmmakers like Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Sam Peckinpah (think Hazelwood's small-town diary Trouble Is a Lonesome Town crossed with Jarmusch's Dead Man and dashes of Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

Burns admits that in crafting the lyrics he made a conscious, albeit understated, effort to create something of a "neo-country concept" album. "It all felt like it was coming together kind of naturally. So in writing the lyrics for the five or so songs on the record that have words, I just decided to tie them in together in my head. I wrote down a rough sketch of the story line, but I didn't want to hit anybody over the head with this kind of idea of a story or a concept record." It's that very lack of pretension that ultimately makes The Black Light so intriguing.  

Despite the fact that both records have won Calexico almost universal critical praise, Burns is quick to shun those who try to point to the group's geographically evocative style as representing the "Tucson sound."

"I think the Tucson sound is a lot more eccentric, and we're more boring," admits Burns with a laugh. "We're more the straight-ahead guys. Bands like Doo Rag and The Pork Torta and a lot of other groups like that have a sound that's pretty unique to Tucson and that you really don't find anywhere else. I would think maybe they're closer to capturing what you'd call the 'sound' of the area."

One place where the band has enjoyed the benefits of its Arizona affiliation is in Europe. "The record's sold about twice as much out there," says Burns. "If you're from Arizona, when you're in France or Germany or Holland, it's like, 'Oh wow, what's this? We don't get this everyday.'"

On top of the cultural novelty, Calexico's strong international following can be attributed to its close links to Giant Sand, a group that has long garnered much greater appreciation abroad than at home.

Ironically, Calexico has become such a relative success that Burns admits the project has created some friction within their "full-time" group. "I think there's a bit of tension there in regards to that. I think Howe is a bit bummed that, 'Hey you guys are going off doing a Calexico thing.' On one hand he's happy for us, but on the other he's kind of like, 'What about Giant Sand?' John and I, our side of the story was that we were waiting for the record to come out."

The record Burns refers to is the new Giant Sand disc A Chore of Enchantment. The album was completed earlier this year after a lengthy recording process that saw the band log studio time in Tucson, Memphis and Woodstock, and collaborate with a trio of producers including Jim Dickinson, John Parish and Kevin Salem. The record had originally been scheduled for a fall release date, but the band's label, London-based V2, initially balked at the tapes the band turned in. "The label said, 'No we want you to go in and make a few more radio-friendly songs. Which everyone is being told that by record companies these days, and it's fucking weird," says a frustrated Burns. "It's like, 'Well, fuck the radio.'

The band did eventually make a number of changes at V2's request to make the record more commercial (including replacing some of Convertino and Burns' rhythm tracks with some by New York studio musicians) and the project progressed far enough that promo copies of the album and press photos were printed up before the release was scratched and the band was dropped from the label. "The record was halted by someone in London who didn't like it," says Burns. "The last I heard, it was being shelved by V2 and since they broke the contract, they were going to have to pay the band."

With the record in a state of commercial limbo, Burns says the group will likely sell the V2 promo copies of the record it received when Giant Sand goes on the road with alt-country eclectics Freakwater and former Mekon Sally Timms for a tour starting in late October. After that, Burns says, the band will forge ahead from the ill-fated Chore project and return to the studio to begin work on a new album.

After finishing their current Calexico tour, opening for indie rockers Pavement, and their upcoming Giant Sand dates, Burns and Convertino plan to return home to begin work on a number of projects, including the next Calexico record. "We'll do that and the new Giant Sand, probably a new OP8 as well."

As to how the group plans on following up the grand sentiment of The Black Light, Burns says the process will reveal that when it happens. "I've got a few ideas here at home. We'll probably do some stuff at home like we did on both Spoke and The Black Light and then take those into the studio and get it onto that beautiful two-inch 16-track recorder."

"Of course" jokes Burns, "this time we'll be spoiled because the studio will have air conditioning, so it will probably suck."

Calexico is scheduled to open for Pavement on Wednesday, October 6, at Alice Cooper'stown. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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